Tawny: Port’s unsung hero

Our second destination on the WSET Diploma weekend study series was to Porto. The historic centre of the city is a UNESCO world heritage site and is a tangle of steep winding streets lined with blue tiled buildings. As spectacular and leg aching as this was to explore, we were here to discover the secrets of their precious export: Port wine.

Our first stop was to the Institute of Port and Douro wines (IVDP), the Port wine governing body. They control the quality and quantity of Port wine and regulate the production process with the aim to protect the Port brand. We were lucky enough to have a private tour of their facility, including the areas where laboratory and sensory analysis is performed for Port certification. Before any wine can be sold, a sample must be analysed by the IVDP who approve the style of wine that the producer can sell it as. Port wine can broadly be divided into two different categories based on the method of maturation. Tawny style is barrel-aged (ie. Tawny port) whilst a Ruby style port is bottle-aged (ie. Vintage port).

Interestingly, we always thought that Vintage Port was the most prestigious of Port wines. However, as we soon learnt at the IVDP, Tawny is considered to be the most prestigious in Porto. Whilst not made in every year, Vintage port requires less investment to produce, it is bottled and usually sold when relatively young, at a considerable price, with the responsibility of the ageing in the hands of the consumer or agent. In comparison, Tawny Port, requires considerable inventory to be held by the houses so that the different age designations can be made (10, 20, 30 & 40 year). The art of blending multiple vintages to create a house style was likened to Champagne. All this work and a 20 year old Tawny Port, ready to drink when released is sold for around CAD 70. This compares to a similar quality 2009 Vintage Port with a price tag of CAD 150 upon released. Who would want to drink anything but Tawny?

After finishing the tour with a rather unmemorable Port tasting (highlighting some new styles like Rosé Port – blech), we headed across the river to Vila Nova de Gaia to do some serious tasting at Taylor’s and Graham’s. This is the home of the Port wine houses and where the ageing of Port wine takes place. The cellars of both houses were impressive, from the large oak vats, to the never-ending rows of barrels, to the relaxing tasting rooms. We especially lusted after the library collection at Graham’s with plenty of pre-phylloxera bottles on show. Amazing.

The line up at Taylor’s was the Chip Dry (Extra Dry White), the 2007 Late Bottled Vintage and a Tawny 10 year old. Graham’s provided different options on the tasting, so we upgraded to taste aged Tawny and Vintage ports. This gave us an impressive list including both a Graham’s 20 and 30 year old Tawny and three different house vintages all owned by the Symington family; Dow’s 1985, Quinta do Vesuvio 1994 and Graham’s 2003. It was interesting to not only taste the different vintages and how these are developing but also the different house styles. Dow’s was definitely a drier style than the other two with less residual sugar and evident tannins despite its age.

The highlights were the 1994 Quinta do Vesuvio and the 20 year old Tawny. Quinta do Vesuvio is a single vineyard vintage port with 1994 being a particularly good vintage year. It was intensely sweet on the palate, with loads of spice, dried fruit and a developing character of molasses. The Graham’s 20 year old Tawny was the counterpoint, with a much more savoury nature to contrast the Vesuvio’s raw power. There was remarkable saltiness to balance the dried fruit flavours, ending with a wonderful impression of caramel. It’s no wonder the winemakers obsess over their Tawny’s.

No trip to Porto would be complete without exploring the origins of the Port grapes in the Alto Douro valley, also a UNESCO world heritage site, so we jumped on a train to Pinhão. Time really did seem to slow down when we arrived in the sleepy little town that only came to life when river boats docked or the train stopped. The surrounding vineyards were spectacular and are easily viewed on a relaxing cruise up the river. Terrace upon terrace of vineyards were stacked up the steep, rocky banks with the odd grove of olives trees in between. It is hard to imagine harvest on these terraces, where one misstep would do more than just damage the grapes.

All too soon, it was time to head to the airport and back to London. Needless to say that our one purchase at duty free was the prestigious 20 year old Graham’s Tawny. Our favourite wine of the weekend!


Travel Details

Flights from London:


  • All the major hotel groups are represented in Porto.

Port House Tours:

  • Taylor’s & Graham’s starting from €3 depending on the quality of Port tasting.

Train from Porto to Pinhão:

  • 2½ hour journey using local train approximately €15 one-way (multiple departures daily; change in Regua).

Douro River Cruise:

  • 2 hour cruise from Pinhão to Tua return (twice daily – morning & afternoon departures).

2 comments to Tawny: Port’s unsung hero

  • I loved Porto when I visited. I also visited Graham’s and agree that the older Vesuvios are very impressive wines. Did you get a chance to visit Niepoort? They make some of the best Tawny out there, and their dry wines are brilliant. Speaking of, did you taste any interesting dry wines on your trip or did you stick to fortifieds?

    • WCVR

      We didn’t have time to visit Niepoort unfortunately. We had a few dry reds with classic Port varietals during meals that were very good.

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